PORT TOWNSEND — Lehani’s Deli and Coffee was enjoying “the best January and February we had ever had” as owners Bill LeMaster and Lynn Hamlin-LeMaster prepared to put the 18-year-old Taylor Street staple up for sale.
“We were planning to roll out our listing on March 23,” said Lynn Hamlin-LeMaster. “But, of course, that was the day that Gov. Inslee’s stay-home order took effect, so we decided to delay.”
Earlier that same month, Port Townsend’s longest-running cafe halted in-house service and switched to takeout orders only.
By the time the reconfigured shop reopened May 19, the LeMasters had proceeded with listing their beloved business. And though they saw some interest over the summer, they have yet to get any bites.
“It was a life-choice change for us to come here back in 2002,” said Bill LeMaster, “and it will probably attract that same kind of person looking for that same kind of life change.”
Bill LeMaster’s work for a large medical-device manufacturer had required a fair bit of travel, he said, and that ate into the time he could spend with his wife and three children — ages 7, 9 and 20 at the time.
“He just wanted out of that corporate lifestyle,” Lynn Hamlin-LeMaster said. “The kids were young, and we just felt like we wanted a change, a more balanced lifestyle.
“Bill wanted his own breakfast place, and he thought he wanted to be a short-order cook,” she said. “He came home one day and said he wanted to do that, and I said, ‘You’re crazy.’ ”
Nevertheless, the couple started looking at restaurants for sale in Port Townsend. They purchased McKenzie’s Deli, which had a long history under different names as a downtown grocery, deli and cafe, Bill LeMaster said.
While the LeMasters continued selling a couple of McKenzie’s favorites, such as Cafeto Coffees and grandma’s chocolate cake, they made the place their own with a new name.
In the years before they married in 1992, the couple would make dining reservations using a mashup of their last names: LeHam. During a visit to Denali, Alaska, a server misread that as Lehani.
“We have been the Lehanis since 1991,” Lynn Hamlin-LeMaster said with a smile. “I wanted to change our last name to Lehani when we got married, but Bill said no.”
The LeMasters also freshened up the menu with help from Port Townsend resident Nancy Milholland, one of the founders of the Port Townsend Food Co-op.
“She introduced me to farmers in Jefferson County and got me linked up with the food co-op,” Bill LeMaster said. “She’s the one who taught me to cook vegan and gluten-free foods. She was an instrumental force in creating what Lehani’s has been for so many years.”
Nearly all of the cafe’s food — from sandwiches and wraps to soups, salads and muffins — is made from scratch with ingredients sourced as locally as the LeMasters can manage.
The LeMasters also continued producing chocolates under the longstanding Port Townsend Chocolate Company brand name, with Lynn Hamlin-LeMaster spending the first year learning the basics of chocolate-making from a former McKenzie’s employee.
And while the cafe has kept them busy, it’s also afforded them the time and freedom to be more active in their kids’ lives and in the community they serve.
While Lynn Hamlin-LeMaster spent a couple of years coaching high-school fastpitch and was a founding member of the Port Townsend Education Foundation, Bill LeMaster served a few years on the city’s planning commission and a few years on the Port Townsend School Board.
“I got to hand my son his high school diploma,” he said. “That’s been the highlight of my career.”
As business owners, the LeMasters have regularly donated food to the Port Townsend Food Co-op and more recently began providing food to Foster Supports of Jefferson County.
In March, they volunteered to make soup in bulk to keep the Just Soup program at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church going through the first two months of the coronavirus pandemic.
Now, the LeMasters say they’re ready to pass their cafe on to someone looking for the same kind of lifestyle change they were seeking 18 years ago.
“Our intent was never to grow this business to increase our income,” Bill LeMaster said. “It was always more about achieving a sustainable balance of work and life, and we’ve definitely done that.”
Jefferson County reporter Nicholas Johnson can be reached at [email protected].